Escaped Alone and What If If Only
Theatre Show Review
By Jake Freeman
Melbourne theatre lovers can enjoy the double bill performances of two very unique shows now playing at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner: Escaped Alone and What If If Only. Both plays are the work of British playwright Caryl Churchill, widely considered one of the world’s greatest living playwrights.
Produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company and directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, audiences will experience these two separate plays that share some deep thematic parallels. In Escaped Alone, a woman joins her three neighbours for a sunny afternoon of sharing gossip and memories whilst in between the telling of catastrophic events. In What If If Only, a partner laments their lost love and conjures up countless possible futures, with and without love.
Escaped Alone stars Helen Morse, Kate Hood, Debra Lawrance and Deidre Rubenstein. It is about four neighbourly women in their 70s catching up for a backyard chat on a sunny afternoon.
Throughout the play, the scene alternates dramatically and abruptly from the gossip of the four women on a fine day to Helen Morse’s character, Mrs Jarrett who delivers a series of bleak and bizarre monologues of a catastrophic apocalypse in the past tense. Her monologues over time contradict each other, offering alternate versions of the apocalypse.
Following an intermission, the second play by Caryl Churchill commences: What If If Only. The stage, previously set for a sunny backyard afternoon setting is now transformed to a small single level apartment at night.
Starring Alison Bell is a woman, known only as S preparing to go to sleep. However, she is still grieving at the loss of her partner whilst holding onto hope that her late lover will communicate with her beyond the grave. In desperation for love and companionship, S conjures up a ghostly figure who describes herself as a ghost of the future, and is soon followed by many other ghostly figures representing various possible futures.
As a newcomer to the work of Caryl Churchill, I was impressed overall by the two separate plays. Escaped Alone and What If If Only both had great acting talent, especially Helen Morse as one of the neighbours and as the narrator along with Deidre Rubenstein who was providing the comic relief and an impressive revelation about her cat phobia. Alison Bell also gave a strong performance in her role as S.
Some of the other strengths of both plays on opening night were the stage setup. Both Escaped Alone and What If If Only had a very basic yet natural and realistic setup, but it was the lighting that made it work, in particular for Escaped Alone. Whenever Helen Morse’s character did her monologues, there were full lighting blackouts, complete with dynamic sound that grasped the audience’s attention. The sudden cut to black and back and forth of the scenes was reminiscent of the Stanley Kubrick film, The Shinning, which would suddenly cut to the onscreen title announcements and back throughout the movie.
It was a nice change to see women in their 70s play in a lead role and not as a secondary or minor character.
While creating the show, Churchill had stipulated that the four characters in Escaped Alone must be played by women at least 70 years of age. The dialogue moved very quickly in Escaped Alone however and the audience may have trouble with the subtle nuances and humour initially.
There is a reason why Caryl Churchill is considered to be one of best living playwrights. She has the ability to entertain and give her audience two very different shows that whilst may not have the same story but have plenty of parallels themes between them that connect all in the space of just 90 minutes. Both plays would particularly appeal to an “Arts” following.
Both shows are playing at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre at 140 Southbank Boulevard, Southbank, a short walk from Flinders Street Station. It starts with Escaped Alone which runs for 45 minutes, then a 20-minute intermission, followed by What If If Only which runs for 20 minutes. Escaped Alone contains several full lighting blackouts, dynamic sound, coarse language and adult themes. What If If Only also contains mature themes. Both shows are recommended for mature audiences. There is a post-show discussion with the cast and crew following the performance on Monday 21 August. Both shows runs until Saturday 9 September.
To purchase tickets to Escaped Alone and What If If Only in Melbourne, go to – https://www.mtc.com.au/plays-and-tickets/whats-on/season-2023/escaped-alone-and-what-if-if-only/